Casino magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun died last month, aged 98. Famous and infamous in equal measure, he was celebrated for his bon vivant approach to life, in particular his marriages to four women at the same time, all of whom he referred to as his wives. Like Ho, my maternal grandfather had four “co-wives”, but unlike Ho, he wasn’t a billionaire. He wasn’t even particularly well off. He came into a bit of money from his father, a Chinese sugar cane plantation worker in Cuba made good, and opened a tailor’s shop on North Bridge Road, in Singapore. In time, he took four wives and installed all four households under one roof. According to my mother, a child of wife No 2, relations were often fractious, but by and large the wives and their 17 children got along. Polygamy was practised in China until the middle of the 20th century. To regulate family life and protect the legal rights of the individuals involved, the ancient Chinese devised the dishu system to govern polygamous arrangements. How Stanley Ho’s love life shaped his success A man had a principal wife ( diqi ), whom he wed in a formal ceremony with multiple witnesses. Any other woman he might marry, before or after his principal wife, was a secondary wife or concubine ( shuqi ), who would usually be introduced into the household with little or no fanfare. My young grandmother, for example, was simply brought to my grandfather’s house one evening with two children in tow (my mother was one of them), paid her respects to the principal wife, and began the next phase of her life as a secondary wife. The principal wife and her children, especially her sons ( dizi ), enjoyed a higher status than the concubine and her sons ( shuzi ) in the family and society at large, and were entitled to a larger share of the inheritance. If there were no di sons, a shu son could be formally “transferred” to the di branch. The same principle applied to royal succession: sons of the empress, even if they were infants, had a stronger claim to the throne than adult sons of the emperor’s lesser consorts. With some variations over the centuries, the dishu system placed all members of a large, extended family in their assigned slots. In real life, however, things often got messy. A man might love his concubine more than his principal wife, for example, and by extension, favoured her children. This often resulted in family upheavals, and when power and politics were involved, things could get nasty. There were many instances of emperors who favoured a shuzi over his dizi and rightful heir and of empresses and their children who were stripped of their rank because the emperor preferred another consort, events that often foreshadowed a bloodbath. Polygamy is illegal in most parts of the world today, though it is still permitted in countries with significant Muslim populations, under strict conditions. In Hong Kong, polygamy was officially prohibited with the passing of the Marriage Act, in 1971. As a progeny of polygamous grandparents and knowing many people in unconventional but stable living arrangements, I don’t consider “traditional” monogamy to be the only way to form a family. Ultimately, if all the participants are willing and happy, and no one is disadvantaged or exploited, who are we to judge how people love and live?